As I write this review for Oakley Hall’s Gypsum Strings, their second release in less than a year, the band is already prepared to record their fourth overall. Having just signed to Merge Records, they’re quickly moving on to bigger and better things, but that clearly doesn’t mean slowing down at all. Though they’re certainly not the first band to release two albums in the course of a year (or three as the case may soon be), they have at least proven themselves capable of releasing two really good albums in one year. Treble’s Molly B. Eichel already spoke of the delights the band delivered in Second Guessing, an early showing that gave listeners a swift kick in the ears. And Gypsum Strings merely follows up on that early promise with even more fantastic songs of country charm and brazen rock `n’ roll spirit.
What separates Gypsum Strings from Second Guessing is that it’s more of a darkly rocking, and even slightly more psychedelic album than its rootsier predecessor. There are certainly moments of folksiness, like the “Bury Your Burden,” a quieter number with plenty of banjo pluckin’ and sweetly crooned vocals from frontman Pat Sullivan, an Oneida ex-pat. Yet the first sound on the album is wildly blazing guitar wizardry on “Confidence Man,” a melodic yet trippy song that finds a showier side to the band with their instrumental pyrotechnics. And yet, despite the flamboyant display in its intro, it does settle into a slower groove, Sullivan and Rachel Cox’s voices harmonizing marvelously, reminiscent of John Doe and Exene Cervenka in their prime.
“Lazy Susan” is a high peak on the album, a solidly grooving rocker that seems to combine krautrock with country & western. The repetitive bassline carries the song through a trippy progression that’s offset by Cox and Sullivan’s harmonies. Though it’s a lengthy number, and a repetitious one, it never loses any of the allure, new instrumental passages, solos and freakouts interrupting a straightforward approach. Yet, all the while, that bassline remains a constant, charging forward like an Amtrak. “If I Was in El Dorado” is a heroic rock epic, stretching across seven and a half minutes with a fair share of the honky-tonk sound we’ve come to expect from the band. Claudia Mogel’s violin takes center stage here, despite its absence from some of the album’s other songs, and Fred Wallace, while not particularly showy here, lends the right amount of guitar heft when needed.
Gypsum Strings also contains two public domain folk gems, reinterpreted by the New York band’s thoroughly modern yet slightly traditional wayback machine. “Spanish Fandango” is pretty and simple, consisting of little more than banjo and acoustic guitar, closing the album without complicating its instrumental beauty. However, “House Carpenter” is somewhat more elaborate, beginning with Rachel Cox’s gentle vocals and Mogel’s violin before Wallace and Sullivan blast through the earth with their mighty guitar thrust and riffs aplenty. This song seems to encapsulate what Oakley Hall is truly about—familiar sounds and traditional styles, but somehow recreated in a manner that’s altogether new and innovative. Here’s looking forward to the next one.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.